Saturday, January 19, 2008

Why Online Grocery Services Should Be Like Online Dating Services

I believe that Connie Reece will be completing a blog post on a related topic, if she hasn't done so already. However, I wanted to explore a tangential issue that emerged from our Twitter discussion this morning. Note that this is tangential, and I encourage you to wait for Connie's post on the topic in general.

If you weren't tweeting at the time, several people, including Anna Lenardson, the aforementioned Connie Reece, Francine Hardaway, and others were tweeting about online grocery stores. By the time I caught up, here's what Connie was saying.

@Pistachio We used to have here and we loved using it. Evidently there weren't enuf of us PJ-clad shoppers to sustain it. :(

Anna tweeted the following at one point:

@conniereece @merlene my brother is trying to launch a similar (peapodian) type venture on a local level in Michigan.

Which resulted in this question from Connie:

@alenardson @merlene @paulswansen What mktg tools/approach is your brother using to launch delivery service? We're nformal focus group here.

At one point we were exploring the issues that prevent people from using online grocery services, and why they may have failed in the past. I found this comment from Alan Gutierrez to be significant:

@oemperor Markets are part of society. Food is primal. Food is not digital. We want to touch it.

If this barrier cannot be overcome, then an online grocery service will fail, because you need an element of trust before you will let someone else choose your tomatoes or your milk.

One current user of online grocery services emphasized this. Francine Hardaway (who uses, the online arm of an Arizona grocery chain) tweeted the following observation about the occasional drawbacks of that existing service.

@conniereece. You know what I mean. Sometimes I get ugly produce and meat. Or they forget something. But it is great service

So how do you ensure that you not get ugly produce?

@conniereece. Worst thing about grocery delivery: depends on the produce piclker or butcher picker.

Again, trust. Francine also noted the turnover of the online grocery chains. The person who does an excellent job of picking out your groceries one week may not even be working for the company next week. How can you trust such a service?

Well, is there another online service that is very dependent on trust? Of course there is.

The person who entered into my brain at this point was Dr. Neil Clark Warren. I've been thinking about him and his company for years, and about the service that he sells.

Think about it. You're looking for someone to spend the rest of your life with, and you're going to use the computer and meet a complete stranger? You definitely need some warm fuzzies before you're going to trust Dr. Neil Clark Warren to find you a soulmate.

So Warren uses metrics, surveying both parties in the transaction to try to ensure compatibility between the two. In case you've successfully avoided the TV for the last several years, here's the story of Dr. Warren's metrics:

Most people know that the key to success in a long-term relationship is compatibility. But what does that mean? If you both like foreign movies and Mocha ice cream, will you still feel the magic in 25 years?

eHarmony is the only relationship site on the web that creates compatible matches based on 29 dimensions scientifically proven to predict happier, healthier relationships. To help you better understand these 29 dimensions, we've grouped them into Core Traits and Vital Attributes.

Core Traits are defining aspects of who you are that remain largely unchanged throughout your adult life.

Vital Attributes are based on learning and experience, and are more likely to change based on life events and decisions you make as an adult.

While the online grocery market is different in some respects, there is a parallel here. As Alan Gutierrez notes, people have a personal relationship with the food that we buy. We are putting this into our bodies, after all, and some people are very picky about what they put in their bodies. While this might not matter for, say, cereal, we do tend to get very picky about the perishable items (vegetables, fruits, meats, milk), as Francine noted above.

So what if we create attributes for the online grocery market?

My three-part "eHarmony-like" proposal to ensure success for an online grocery service is as follows:

  1. Designate each of the online grocery firm's employees as "personal shoppers."

  2. Create profiles for the personal shoppers, including their hours of availability and their shopping preferences.

  3. Allow customers to schedule time with the personal shopper of their choice.
In my view, while creation of "personal shoppers" would remove some of the uncertainty about using an online grocery service, that in itself is not enough. Yes, it's nice to know that Connie brought my groceries the last time around, but that doesn't really tell me if Connie is right for me.

Similarly, the ability to rate personal shoppers (similar to the way eBay sellers are rated) is not enough. Let me advance the idea that grocery shopping is more complex than eBay shopping.

There are so many variables involved, and there is no one right way to, say, buy tomatoes. Here's one opinion:

Look for firm, full fruit with good color. Speaking of color, not all tomatoes come in street-light red: some are pink, some are deep purplish red... they also come in yellow, green, black, white, peach-colored, even multi-color striped. If you find some of these heirloom varieties, snap 'em up!

Smell the tomato; I don't buy tomatoes that have a chemical smell. Feel the tomato (don't squeeze so hard that you bruise it). It should give a little.

Don't buy tomatoes that are too soft. Also avoid tomatoes with cracks, blemishes, bruises, or signs of worms.

And here's another opinion:

When shopping for tomatoes, smell the stem for a "garden" aroma.

So shopper number 2 looks for more than a non-chemical smell. What about color (or, in this third case, colour)?

Research undertaken in the Food Group at Lincoln University has confirmed that when people buy tomatoes they make their choice based on the colour of the tomatoes. However, choosing a highly coloured tomato does not guarantee that it will also be tasty.

So if each of the personal shoppers completes a profile, you will know whether the personal shopper chooses tomatoes, and other items, the way that YOU would like them to be chosen. If you're into color, then choose the personal shopper who values this. If you're more interested in the garden aroma, then find the personal shopper who uses that criterion.

The personal shopper preferences could be simple (I initially proposed eight overall preferences - you can guess why I chose the number eight) or they could be exceedingly complex (specify your selection preferences for 100, or 1000, items that could end up on a potential shopper's list).

For example, here's what a profile may look like:

NAME: Bob G.



SPECIALTIES: Bakery, Produce

1. Careful bagging to keep groceries from being damaged
2. Fresh bread; preferably hot (hot bread available for 4pm shoppers only)
3. No bruised fruit! I hate bruised fruit!

Monday 10am - 5pm
Tuesday 10am - 5pm
Wednesday 10am - 5pm

Monday, January 21, 2008, 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm

Well, this is one idea. I encourage you to monitor Connie Reece's blog and check her views on the topic.

P.S. If you're interested in a more scientific and automated view of the subject, take a look at this abstract from the IEEE website:

We propose an agent-based grocery shopping system, which automates grocery shopping process by comparing grocery information based on user's preference. The agents gather grocery information from several store server agents and compare it with user's preferences of groceries and stores. The agents could adapt to user's up-to-date preference by learning from his/her evaluation of previous shopping results. There are three organization agents in our system: a user agent, an information management agent, and a store server agent. The organization agent is responsible for organizing the primitive agents and coordinating message delivery. By implementing a prototype of the agent-based grocery shopping system, we have confirmed that it is instrumental in purchasing the best possible groceries of user's preference from several grocery stores. This system eliminates or reduces the burden of grocery shopping, and helps user save enormous time required shopping around grocery stores

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Anna said...

Thanks for this oemperor. I am sending my brother here for your tips.

Ontario Emperor said...

And anyone else interested in the topic should go to Connie Reece's post, which covers all of the suggestions.

I also have a followup post here.

Anonymous said...

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